It is safe to say that Sir Michael Wilshaw's outspoken criticism of colleges in Ofsted's annual report ruffled more than a few feathers in the FE sector, with not a single college rated "outstanding" for teaching and learning in 2011-12.
According to the chief inspector, the sector is focusing on vocational courses of "little real value" and "needs reorientating towards a moral determination to provide high-quality and relevant provision".
But ahead of Sir Michael's appearance before the Commons Education Select Committee to discuss the report next month, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has hit back. The AoC, which represents more than 340 colleges in England, has accused Sir Michael of failing to provide evidence for his criticisms.
"We believe the chief inspector's report includes some significant errors and there are important omissions which undermine the credibility of some of his conclusions," stated an AoC report seen by TES.
The AoC also claimed that inspection verdicts under Ofsted's new framework are inconsistent due to the number of lead inspectors who have little experience of the FE sector. "The variability in reports is evident to anyone who reads several of them," the report added.
Ofsted's questioning of the sector's "moral determination" was "particularly disappointing", the AoC report said. "No evidence was provided to support the statement," it claimed.
While acknowledging the rise in colleges' "so-called success rates", Ofsted said that completion rates are "an increasingly poor proxy for the attainment of skills that are valued by employers".
In response, AoC chief executive Martin Doel told TES: "To castigate colleges on measures the government has asked them to perform against is out of order. (Sir Michael) is entitled to his opinion but I am entitled to ask where the evidence for his conclusions is."
He added that Ofsted's approach to inspection is "difficult to translate" to the FE sector. "Even if a college is large, it's inspected in the same way as a primary school. There, you can see a large proportion of the lessons delivered.
"[Because of the size of colleges] you can only see a sample, a small proportion, therefore data has an important role as a proxy." Mr Doel also pointed out that success rates in English colleges far outstrip those achieved by comparable providers in the US and Australia.
The AoC claimed that Ofsted's annual report also failed to take account of the fact that its risk-assessment process - in which it analyses current attainment data to decide which institutions to inspect - means the figures are skewed in favour of schools. In 2011-12, 44 per cent of college inspections were triggered by this process, compared with just 34 per cent of school inspections.
However, Mr Doel said that while Sir Michael, "clearly comes from a school background", he is "making a tremendous effort understand the college sector".
Ofsted's annual report also criticised colleges that have expanded their provision but failed to give enough attention to the quality of teaching and learning. It said expansion "serves little purpose if the provision does not make a significant difference to the life chances of learners". But the AoC has insisted there is "no evidence presented for the supposed focus on expansion at the expense of quality".
The AoC revealed that 25 different lead inspectors visited colleges in 2011-12; of these, only eight led three or more inspections in that period. "Colleges are concerned about the credibility of some additional inspectors (those contracted by private providers) as inspectors of peers," Mr Doel said. "It's quite hard to see how someone leading one inspection a year is in a good position to benchmark one college against another.
"It's a high-stakes game for people in colleges. Therefore they deserve to feel they are being fairly treated."
Ofsted's annual report also failed to take into account large swathes of FE provision, including the fact that a third of A levels are sat by college students, the AoC said.
But Ofsted defended its verdicts. A spokesman said: "Ofsted has not seen the AoC's policy paper in full and therefore is unable to respond to concerns raised. We invite the AoC to discuss these issues directly. We are confident that all the judgements in the annual report are secured in comprehensive evidence based on thousands of inspections."
Proportion of colleges rated inadequate or satisfactory in their most recent inspection:
2009-10 - 30%
2010-11 - 30%
2011-12 - 35%
Number of colleges rated outstanding for teaching and learning in the past two years - 0.
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